Raising meat pigs....
Last year we raised meat pigs for the first time. Now that it's over and our freezers are full, I'm looking back to see if it was worth it for our homestead.
**There are pictures of the slaughter/butchering process below so be prepared if you're squeamish. I'm not holding back on my journey raising pigs.**
How it started...
We only had a small idea of what we were getting ourselves into last year. We talked about raising meat pigs in the past but we always bought one that was already, processed from our neighbors. Then the neighbors decided they weren't going to raise them anymore and offered us their hog shelter and equipment in exchange for half a pig. We jumped at the opportunity.
It took months of hunting to find 3 pigs at a reasonable price. We either found litters that were too expensive or that were already sold out in our price range. At the end of May we finally pick up 3 Berkshire/Hampshire/ Old Spot cross gilts (girls) for $125 each. They were 8 weeks old at that point and all three barely fit into a medium sized dog cage together.
Piglets are the fun part of raising meat pigs...
Pigs start out cute little squealing things. The piglets were not tame and hated to be handled when we got them. Squealing at our every interaction, like they were dying. We housed them in the hog shelter for the first two days before letting them into the scrambled together pig yard. At this point I tried to make friends, I sat with them, trying to find an itchy spot they liked scratched and feeding them treats. They wanted none of it. Hard as I tried it stayed that way. They loved being fed and would tolerate a pat on the butt here or there but all in all they did not like us.
We named them Dinner, Pork chop, and Fried Rice, to tell them apart and still remind us of there ultimate purpose.
We fed them a steady diet of free choice non-gmo pig chow, alfalfa pellets and supplemented them with fresh produce daily. They got plenty of cabbage, carrots, pears, apples, and lettuce to eat. At one point I even split up the fodder tray I feed the poultry so the pigs could have some (you can see them chowing down on it in the first picture) they loved it.
They also got slop from our kitchens, which usually consisted of rice, cooked potatoes, an occasional crust of bread, and fruits and veggies.
Their new home
As for their enclosure, we had the hog hut attached to an already fenced area, which was next to the old chicken coop. It had previously been a duck run, then a garden, then a goat run, and then left to overgrow when we sold the goats. We thought it would be perfect for the piggies and we hoped they would take out the blackberry forest in the back.
We were sort of right. The pigs loved their area until they turned the whole thing to mud and wanted more space. Even though we lined the fence with hot wire strands, they did not properly respect the hot wire and would break through the fence. Often ripping the fencing from the ground up. Once summer hit they were escaping at least once a week. We would patch up their escape route, try to fortify it, and round them up again. Thankfully they never went far, always stayed on the property, and rarely did more than one pig escape at a time. They would wait a week or so and then get out again. Almost like clock work.
And as for those blackberries? They only made tunnels through it and used it as a shady mud bed. Not exactly what we wanted but at least they made use of it.
The stories I could tell....
On one memorable occasion, about a month before they were scheduled to be butchered. I was home alone. On a Saturday, and I was making a lazy breakfast and wearing my pj's (which consisted of thin black leggings and a t-shirt) when there was a knock at my door. I was surprised to find my elderly neighbor informing me that all three pigs were loose. So I slipped on my yellow crocs and ran outside to put them back. I had never had all three out before, let alone while I was by myself. I fixed the fencing the best I could and then I set out to catch them.
Bless her heart, my neighbor tried to help as I chased the beasts out of the barn (where they were trying to trash my chicken feed buckets). I finally got one of them back in the pen. As a thank you she rolled in fresh mud and shook it all over me. I was covered from head to toe with mud spots. I cringed as I wiped it off of my eyelids, knowing it wasn't just mud.
It was at about this time that I remembered I had been cooking breakfast and it was still on the stove! Running into my house, trailing muddy footprints as I went, and removed the cast iron pan from the burner as smoked billowed out from the lid... I had burned my bacon while chasing pigs...
I laughed and cried
Going back outside to wrangle the other two and found that the first one had escaped again. I still had three pigs to catch. I fixed the fence AGAIN, this time daring them to get out the same place and I went to wrangle them in the pen again. There were tears of frustration for sure.
At this point I tried bribing them with food (that got Dinner in) but the other two were stubborn and liked their freedom. When they walk into the horse stall to check it out I took the opportunity to lock them in there. Moving them would have to wait till I had reinforcements. I thanked my neighbor, showered and made myself a bowl of cereal while I waited till my parents and Mr. Everything got home.
*Graphic picture warning*
Needless to say we were all looking forward to the pigs getting butchered. We wanted to stop fixing the fences and not have to chase pigs at all hours of the day. Having a freezer full of pork sounded pretty nice too. There was even talk of us doing it early ourselves because we were just that done with them.
I was present when the mobile slaughter truck came and I watched the whole process. It was the first time I hadn't/couldn't help butcher a meat animal that I had raised. Now that I've watched the process I would feel confident doing it ourselves. One of the reasons I raise my own meat is to make sure the animal has a good quality life and a quick and respectful death. It was hard watching these men come in and butcher my animals because there were indifferent to them, it's just their job, and they go through the motions. Put down, bleed out, move to the next one. I probably felt so strongly about it because I was on the sidelines. These men were by no means disrespectful and my animals had a quick death. But it felt off to me for some reason.
Maybe I'm just a control freak
There were three men on the butchering crew. From start to finish they were done with all three pigs in just under and hour. It was impressive to watch them work. Their knife skills and processes were like a dance. They also had some pretty cool equipment to get the job done. Like what looked like a special boxed-in sawzall for cutting through the spine.
They tagged our pork to keep track of it and told us they would call with the hanging weight in a few days.
The waiting game begins...
When they got back to us our hanging weights were 203 lbs, 227 lbs, and 246 lbs. All in the average hanging weight from my research. I believe all of them would have been above 230 had they 1) not gotten out as often and 2) if one of them hadn't hurt her leg and developed a limp and loss of appetite just before slaughter (hence the 203 lbs).
The butchers said they would call each party involved in a day or two to find out how each party wanted their pig broken down. A week and a half later I got my call. Here is where I really started disliking the process.
We were never given a info sheet on what to expect or options or even a pricing list (as we had in the passed when buying pig from the neighbors). The person on the other end of the phone was going over the same speech they had hundreds of times before and was checking boxes. Before I knew it the call was over and other than knowing our steaks were ¾ inch thick, our pork belly was staying whole, and the ground meat wasn't turning into sausage, I didn't know what we were getting or what any of the fee's were.
Fast forward 2 weeks. I'm at a family Christmas party and I get the call. Our pork is ready for pick up. We agree to pick it up just before Christmas and end the call. Being in the middle of a loud and hot Christmas party I forgot to bring up numbers. So we went off our weight and the $0.72 per pound cut and wrap that my parents had been quoted when they first set up the slaughter date. $0.72 x 203 lbs = $144.16. This place was cash or check only so we save up $150 during Christmas to pay for the pig.
The day of pick up arrives and surprise! Our total is $269.35....... It was like a punch to the gut. $120 more expensive than we planned and at Christmas when money is tight. We left and drove to the only ATM in the area and it was out of order. It was a sign from the universe. We went back to let them know we'd have to reschedule our pick up and I asked for them to break down the pricing and if they had a price sheet because no one had discussed it with us. They have a price chart but it was buried beneath a pile of papers and not accessible anywhere else. They shrugged off my frustration and went about their day.
In case you're wondering the extra fees were for curing (thank god I only cured our ham hocks, which cost us $8. My parents were not so lucky and had more cuts cured, which came out to $105 extra) and a $95 kill fee. PER PIG.
Now, don't get me wrong. Now that I am aware of these fee's they make sense. I didn't have to kill my animal or dispose of any unwanted bits. We were only left with some blood puddles to clean up. And smoking/curing is an extra process, which takes time and energy. But when it's not disclosed to ANY of the parties it feels slimy and unprofessional.
As a result I will NEVER use this butcher again. Communication and transparency are important when conducting business. This company had problems with both. This experience definitely turned me off from using a mobile butcher. Learn from my mistakes. Ask about all the fee's and question everything. You'll have a better experience that way.
Live and learn
Okay. Rant over and back to the main purpose of this post. The Pork!
The pork itself turned out AMAZING. I've never loved a pork chop more in my life and the bacon! Oh, my, god, the bacon is the best we've ever had. It's so flavorful and moist. Even the fat has a sweetness to it. I love the chops with just a little salt and pepper. No need to fancy it up and hide that beautiful pork flavor.
The one regret I do have is not smoking the ham steaks. But looking back I don't remember being asked if we wanted the ham smoked. I'm guessing it was a fault in our communication. Away. That is the one thing I would change about how we got the pig processed.
Okay, I'll break down the numbers for raising pigs. I'm not including the fresh feed as most of it was free, or the equipment as the hog hut was traded and the rest we pretty much had already, or the smoking/curing fee or taxes because I don't have the break down information on that. This is the breakdown for raising and butchery each pig.
$125 per pig
25 bags of feed at approx $20 per bag =$500. Split between three pigs =$167 per pig
It cost us $292 per pig with buying them and feeding them for 6 months.
$95 kill fee per pig
$0.72 per pound cut and wrap
Each pig broke down differently because of the weight but are as follows.
The 246 lb pig was $272 to process. Raising and processing for this pig was $564 total and breaks down to $2.30 per lb.
The 227 lb pig was $258 to process. Raising and processing for this pig was $550 total and breaks down to $2.43 per lb.
And the 203 lb pig was $241 to process. So raising and processing this pig was $532 total and breaks down to $2.62 per lb.
The USDA national average for pasture raised pork is $5.50 per lb when it's direct to the consumer. My pigs also beat out most of the pricing for commodity pork prices which is awesome. I also compared prices with local offers for pasture raised pork and the lowest one I saw in my area was $2.70 per lb hanging weight plus cut and wrap (so for example the 203 lb pig would be $694 bought and fully processed at that pricing). I feel good for how the pricing came out with these pigs, but I know I can get it even lower next time.
Would I do it again?
Yes. But I would change a few things.
For starters we need better fencing and a larger area. I also want a cement pad where their water is so they can't make a gigantic mud hole (yup, they made one. If I sat in it the water would probably come up to my chest. It's a monster of a hole). We set up a nipple waterer and they figured out how to hold it open and spill water everywhere. A cement pad will help with that.
I would also raise a few more pigs and buy the feed in bulk. I'd sell off the extra pigs to offset my own costs and buying in bulk is almost always cheaper. This would lower the expense of the feed and ultimately lower the price per pound for raising each pig.
Lastly I would butcher my own pig. Aside from avoiding the pricing drama I'd also get to process the animal my way. The butcher we used skinned the pig and removed its head. I would have liked to keep the skin on so I could dry cure the leg and other applications that are safer and easier to do when the skin is left on. While they were breaking down the pigs we asked to save the liver's and the hearts. If we hadn't mentioned it they would have just thrown them away. I feel like this is so wasteful. I raised this beautiful animal and I'm going to use as much of it as possible to feed myself and my family.
In the future
If we can set up better fencing this year I would love raising pigs again. If not I'll wait. I have no desire to repeat last year, no matter how amazing the meat is. Chasing escape pigs is a pain in the ass.